Opinion: Why the Melbourne to Warrnambool should be a handicap race again

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This Saturday nearly 200 cyclists will gather in Werribee for the start of the 102nd edition of the Melbourne to Warrnambool. ‘The Warrny’, as it’s affectionately known, is Australia’s oldest road race, and the second oldest road race in the world, behind Liege-Bastogne-Liege. For much of its history, the Warrny was a handicap race but nowadays it’s a mass-start scratch race. Indeed, all riders in all grades start together, from men’s National Road Series riders all the way down to D-grade racers.

Freelance writer Craig Fry has a long family history with the Warrny, last year becoming the 19th member of his extended family to take part in the race. In the following piece he looks at some of the ongoing challenges facing the race, and argues that it’s time the Warrny was a handicap race once more.

The Melbourne to Warrnambool is an enduring monument of Australian road cycling, with a long and rich history worthy of celebration. But it is also a race that has struggled, periodically disappearing (i.e. 1899-00, 1912-21, 1927-28, 1934, 1940-46) over the 122 years since its first edition in 1895, due to the challenges posed by two world wars, administrative troubles, and a lack of money.

In his excellent 2015 book, ‘The Warrnambool’, John Craven described this Australian classic as “bruised and battered”. He would know — Craven served as race director from 1996 to 2012 (through his event promotions company Caribou Publications), and was a member of the Warrnambool Citizens Road Race Committee (WCRRC) for 20 years.

Speaking with me from Geelong this week, Craven elaborated on the challenges the race faces.

“Rightly or wrongly, the classic has been bludgeoned by police restrictions over the past 10 or so years,” Craven said. “During Caribou’s tenure as the promoting group, I was pretty well constantly at loggerheads with the police, and VicRoads, and some civic authorities over which route the race should take, and also its importance to the Warrnambool region”.

Craven himself was a part of the race’s biggest change. “We got involved in 1996 to take over the management of the race from the Warrnambool Citizens Road Race Committee,” he said. “We agreed to do that under the condition that the classic became a scratch race, which was a highly controversial move because it had been a handicap for 100 years.”

The Warrnambool is no stranger to change. The very first edition started in Warrnambool, and was so popular with locals that they raised £50 prize money to run it again 10 weeks later from Melbourne to Warrnambool. It then ran from Warrnambool to Melbourne 32 times until 1958 after which it reversed again.

Left: Vin Beasley wins the 1952 Warrnambool off 50 minutes. Right: Russell Mockridge (fastest time) and Stan Bonney (winner off 36 minutes) in the 1957 Warrnambool.

The race has had a number of start locations over the years too: Warrnambool, Port Melbourne, Southbank, Williamstown, Footscray, and Werribee, the last of those since 2009. And the race distance has also varied – it was extended to 299km in 2004 by organisers to claim it as the world’s longest one-day road race, but has since fluctuated (e.g. it was 256km in 2013, and is 277km this year).

Such changes over the years help explain why the Warrnambool has survived when many other road races in Australia and abroad have disappeared. The ability to adapt to external pressures can be an asset. Indeed, Craven believes the shift in 1996 to a graded scratch race format saved the event: “In a lot of circles the move was condemned, but I know had we not made the changes, the race wouldn’t exist now”.

As the story goes, it took 100 or so members of Victoria Police to manage the 1995 race. That year the 72-minute limit group had reached the outskirts of Geelong before the scratch bunch had even turned a pedal out of Southbank in the Melbourne CBD. The police were apparently ready to end the race after that, unless things changed.

So, the Warrnambool changed to a mass-start format the next year and survived. And yet, since that time, it seems the question of the race’s survival has never been very far away from people’s lips.

Recent talk about the status and future of the Warrnambool has focused on the race format and route, and whether it is a serious one-day classic or edging closer to a gran fondo for amateurs. The standard of riding skill, and even the quality of the new time medallion has come under fire from some.

The Warrny is raced as a mass-start event, with all grades starting at the same time.

Another contributing factor to uncertainty about the Warrnambool’s future has been the recent variability in race management. Multiple changes in the management and promotions areas have happened since 2012 – from Caribou to Cycling Australia in 2013 and 2014, back to the local WCRRC and Caribou for the 2015 Centenary edition, over to GTR Events in 2016 (with Cycling Australia oversight), and now Cycling Victoria as promoter in 2017 with sponsorship assistance from John Craven and Caribou.

The race has hardly been a model of stability, and that is a real threat. New Cycling Victoria CEO Paul Jane agrees.

“It’s not normally something we do,” he said, referring to the state body being forced to take on race promotion in 2017 after the previous promoter handed it back. “Without a promoter the race won’t prevail, and previously the promoters have taken a significant financial hit in delivering the race.”

Fortunately, Cycling Victoria is taking the future of the Warrnambool seriously. “Part of our conversation this year is around planning for next year and how we actually return it to its iconic status,” Jane says. “There’s some tough conversations to be had with a whole range of partners around the road route and so on.

“The timing is right to have a conversation on how do we rebuild the race, and what are the important elements.”

Encouraging words indeed. But, how do you return a race like the Warrnambool to ‘iconic status’? Where do you start?

When I ask Jane about the possibility of big changes, such as returning to a handicap format, his response is somewhat surprising. Referring to the current rolling road closures used to manage the race, he says a handicap “would become unmanageable to deliver the level of safety that you should have over that 270km stretch of road”. He adds: “But that’s not saying it’s off the table.”

If the expert view in cycling circles is that the status quo is unlikely to secure the future of the race, why not consider making some big and bold changes?

Take the idea of reverting to a handicap format, for instance. Many people would say that’s untenable because of the already significant resource implications of the rolling road closure (Victoria Police mandates a maximum 15-minute time gap between either a breakaway or trailing group and the main peloton.)

But what if legislative changes were made, enabling trained volunteers to alleviate the burden on police by taking a greater role in traffic management during sporting events like this (such as in South Australia and Queensland)? Or what if Victoria Police costs could be waived for events like the Warrnambool, as in other states such as South Australia where the police don’t charge?

Other precedents exist which could be instructive too. The 109-year-old Melbourne to Ballarat Handicap still runs up the Western Freeway every year, without apparent difficulty or loss of rider numbers.

And the Grafton to Inverell classic operates both a rolling road closure and complete road closure on different race sections, with police escort vehicles for each of the three race divisions which start 10 minutes apart.

The winning break at the 2016 Melbourne to Warrnambool.

Another argument for returning the Melbourne to Warrnambool to a handicap race has to do with the race’s history. The Warrnambool was a handicapped event for more than a century during periods that were arguably the halcyon days of the race. Large and vocal spectator crowds lined the main streets of the towns that used to be on the race route, healthy fields of entrants included some of the sport’s biggest names, and there was always the chance the club battler with a good mark could beat the scratch bunches.

To my mind, the appeal of the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic has always been that it was ‘the people’s bike race’. It’s the history and culture around an event like the Warrnambool that captures people’s imagination – the stories, the exploits, and the great achievements that pique the interest of competitors and spectators alike.

It’s for this reason that I think a handicap format for the Warrnambool again would see numbers of race entries increase dramatically – a wider group of cycling club members would be attracted to testing themselves in the race. If you doubt the allure of history, remember that numbers in the 100th edition of the race swelled considerably – there were 370 entries in 2015, and 70 riders missed out when Cycling Australia capped the field at 300.

But the suggestion of looking ‘back to the future’ to make the Warrnambool a handicap again is more than misty-eyed sentimentality. What you also get with more race entrants is the possibility of securing adequate funds to cover costs. To that end, why not consider increasing race entry fees too?

At the current rate of $170 entry fee per rider, this year’s Warrnambool field of roughly 190 will bring in around $32,000. That may sound like a sizeable amount, but in reality it isn’t. According to Cycling Victoria, the Warrnambool currently costs around $100,000 to run, of which roughly $40,000 goes to traffic management including police, traffic managers, Cycling Victoria motos, the end-of-race finish line set-up, and so on.

If the entry fees were raised to, say, $250 per rider, you’d be looking at $50,000 from a field of 200 registered entrants (and obviously more if larger fields could be attracted, or higher entry fees implemented). Before you scoff at that suggestion, bear in mind the current entry fees for some of Australia’s major gran fondo / sportif-type cycling events: Amy’s Gran Fondo $225, L’Etape Australia $345, Around the Bay 250km and 210km $235, Audax Alpine Classic Extreme $265, Bicycle Network 235km Peaks Challenge $315.

Regardless of what you might think about the idea of the Warrnambool reverting to a handicap format, or other race changes probably already under consideration — i.e. a new route, a different time of year due to pending National Road Series changes, a new start location, increased entry fees etc. — one thing we can all agree on is that this Australian classic is worth saving.

Nathan Elliott won the 2016 Warrny.

A big part of the challenge of securing the Warrnambool’s future will be to ensure the right expertise is at the table making decisions about the race. According to John Craven, the days of volunteers being able to successfully organise an event like the Warrnambool are gone.

“In the future, it will always have to be a competent management company organising it in conjunction with Cycling Victoria and the Warrnambool Citizens Road Race Committee,” he said. “The question is how many competent cycling management companies are out there in Australia to make it work? That’s the big big issue.”

Cycling Victoria CEO Paul Jane also knows the challenges ahead — traffic management, the race route being progressively pushed out onto rural roads, police costs, and regaining its iconic status — and appears ready to tackle these with good ideas. He talks of the possibilities that may come with improved road conditions (a dual carriageway) from Melbourne to Colac, the legislative changes made in South Australia and Queensland enabling volunteers to take a greater role in traffic management, and a funding shortfall that the Victorian government could assist with for such an important heritage sporting event (the Andrews Labor government provides $20,000 annually compared to the $200,000 over four years the Napthine Coalition government provided).

Jane also appears to have a keen eye for the importance of history and ceremony in promoting the Warrnambool, saying with a laugh “We would love to see it roll over the Westgate again, and people talk about it starting at the Melbourne Town Hall to regain that iconic status.”

People have been talking about the future of ‘the Warrny’ for a long time. Over the 122 years since the first edition in 1895 the classic has endured despite world wars, the Great Depression, administrative disputes, and a lack of resources. Indeed, as new race director Scott McGrory OAM said recently, it is “a race that has always symbolised the spirit of the Aussie battler.”

Thankfully the Warrnambool has survived to this point. And yet, here we are in the lead up to the 102nd edition of this monument of Australian cycling, and its long-term future prospects again look uncertain.

So, what happens next? According to CEO Paul Jane, “Everything is on the table post this year. We want to have a full debrief and explore every possibility.” He makes a point of saying “the Cycling Victoria Board is adamant the race will continue.”

I hope he’s right. Something needs to happen now before this great ‘bruised and battered race for the battlers’ disappears.

About the author

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer and cyclist based in Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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